Spotlight on Percival Everett

Percival Everett (b. 1956) is one most prolific, acclaimed, yet under-examined African American writers working today. To date, Everett has published eighteen novels, three collections of short fiction, three poetry collections and one children’s book, but his work has not garnered the critical attention that it deserves. In a step to correct this critical injustice, Keith Mitchell and Robin Vander have co-edited Perspectives on Percival Everett -- the first collection of scholarly essays on Everett published in the United States. And this summer, UPM is adding a Percival Everett volume to our Literary Conversation Series.

Perspectives on Percival Everett examines issues of identity, authenticity, and semiotics, in addition to postmodernism and African-American and American literary traditions—all issues essential to understanding his aesthetic and political concerns. The book is now available from UPM. 

Below is a conversation with Mitchell and Vander that covers the reasons behind Everett’s lack of critical attention, his influences, and new discoveries that were made while editing their new book.   

This is the first collection of scholarly essays on Percival Everett’s work published in the United States. Why do you think that Everett has not received the sustained critical attention that he deserves?

 First, it seems that literary scholars, both black and white, do not quite know what to make of Everett and his work. Everett has primarily eschewed categorization in terms of folks wanting to pigeon hole him as an African American writer. Although a good bit of his fiction specifically deals with African American experiences, he often does not foreground so-called “African Americaness” in his work. Indeed, in a number of his novels, the main characters are not even determinedly “raced.” That is the characters are neither definitively physically racially marked nor dialogically racially marked. As such, his work is not always specifically grounded in the “black experience”; rather, we would argue that all of his work, regardless of the racial identification of the main characters, is grounded in human experiences. 

Perhaps another reason that Everett’s work has not received the critical attention it is due is because most readers find his work too experimental or avant garde. Again, Everett eschews these labels. His work is no more or less experimental or avant garde (read difficult), than Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, or Don DeLillo; not to mention Ishmael Reed, John Edgar Wideman, or Toni Morrison. Similar to these writers, Everett is extremely innovative and does not dumb down his work. 

In terms of Everett’s relationship with the large publishing houses, unfortunately, the major publishing houses in America do not particularly “get” Percival Everett. Thus, most of his work, often by the author’s choice, has been published by more independently operated and independently-minded publishers such as Graywolf Press and Red Hen Press. Thus, although Everett’s reading public might be smaller than say someone like David Foster Wallace or Toni Morrison who, to different degrees, embraced the role of celebrity-writer, Everett’s reading and scholarly audiences are fiercely loyal and recognize his genius.

Who and what are some of Percival Everett’s literary and extra-literary influences?

Percival Everett is probably one of the most well-read American writers working today. Not only is he an internationally acclaimed writer, but he also teaches creative fiction and literary theory at the University of Southern California. In addition, he is an accomplished poet and abstract painter. One can see influences from diverse sources as Euripides, John Dryden, Laurence Sterne, Mark Twain, James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, Jean Toomer, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Ishmael Reed, Clarence Major,  to name a few. Moreover, his work has also been influenced by high literary theory, which his work often parodies, as well as modernist visual artists and poets, as well as film.  

How did your interest in Percival Everett’s work lead to this groundbreaking collection of essays?

The both of us were familiar with some of Everett’s work, especially Erasure. I had taught the novel in a special topics course on modern and postmodern American literature. Robin and I had worked successfully together on a previous project; and over the course of talking about Everett and his work, we decided to try to put this much-needed project together. So, we sent out a Call for Papers and soon realized that there were a number of other scholars in America and other parts of the world who were just as intrigued by Everett’s work as we were. We found the collection to be the perfect venue for bringing together like-minded individuals who wanted to share their research on Everett’s oeuvre

If someone is interested in reading Percival Everett’s fiction, where is a good place to start?

There are several of Everett’s novels that we would recommend to someone unfamiliar with his work: Zulus (1990), a beautifully written novel about finding one’s identity in a post-Apocalyptic world; God’s Country (1994); a rollicking parody of the American western novel, and Erasure (1999), to date arguably his most well known novel about an African American writer of experimental novels who sets up an elaborate ruse against the established American publishing industry in order to prove its philistinism.  We would also suggest Everett’s three highly regarded short collections: The Weather and Women Treat Me Fair (1987), Big Picture (1996), and Damned If I Do (2004).  

What is the most surprising thing you discovered in editing this collection of essays?
Well, not so surprising given Percival Everett’s vast interests as a writer, a poet, and a visual artist, we found that contributor’s were able to deeply engage Everett on his level. The different and innovative approaches presented in the analysis of Everett’s fiction and poetry, says something about the high level of intellectual engagement expressed by the essay contributors and is a testament to the high level of intellectual engagement with which Everett engages in his writing. 
Rather than something that surprised us during our editing of the essays, we would have to say that an enduring effect of reading our contributors’ works and rereading so much of Everett to ensure that the essays, as best as possible, truly captured the essence of his writing, inarguably would have to be our renewed awareness of theory and its place in creative writing and scholarship.  When thinking through the essays and revisiting Everett’s works, one realizes how theory isn’t simply applied to reading a text but also woven into the writing of the text.  Honestly, that has to be one of the best takeaways from having worked on this project.  Everett’s texts were at times embodiments and contestations of certain theoretical ideals, and trying to figure out how those theories were embedded in the narratives often proved both challenging and rewarding.  Still, we genuinely had a good time working through it all.